Posts Tagged ‘Arts’

No post in nearly 2 months! What’s wrong with me? Did I die? Has something horrible happened? No, quite the contrary. I’ve been busy with moving. I also slowed down on posting a bit to start working on a full fledged memoir. We’ll see how that turns out. Still, writing all this stuff feels good and I think I’ll keep doing it now that I’m settled.

I’ve recently moved to Nashville, which has been an aspiration of mine for a while. I think I may have mentioned several posts back that I was a songwriter as a kid (among other things) – pushing out cheesy MIDI demos and throwing them at anyone who even stopped to look at me. I was billed (by mom, and – somewhat reluctantly – by myself) as a Kid Genius. A Boy Wonder. A Musical Prodigy. It made me feel like a gimmick, like a circus act. But somehow, I got attention. Publishers listened. Although nobody took my songs, they were supportive and offered advice. Except for one. Moving to Nashville has put me in mind of that incident, and it got me thinking I ought to confront it.

I remember getting off the phone and being totally psyched – a friend of a friend knew the head of a giant publishing house. He had agreed to meet me one on one and listen to my music. My friend had graciously talked me up, and piqued his interest. I began to suspect later that the publisher’s interest was more in the vein of arm twisting than interest, but that’s neither here nor there.

I brought my best songs along – all in all, about ten – and mentally tried to prepare myself for a meeting. I hoped that he would listen to some of these songs (which I was sure were hits, because I was a Boy Genius) and decide to give me a publishing deal or something. At minimum, I thought it would be a contact I could pitch music to later. My biggest contact, certainly – I had never set foot in such a big publishing firm, much less seen the top guy’s office. I waited in the lobby for him, and was surprised when he came from the street instead of the elevators. He brushed past a secretary trying to give him a message and flicked his hand my way. Come on, it said. Let’s go. I’m a Very Busy Person. I’ve been around my share of Very Busy People (or Very Important Persons, or Very Late Persons), so right off the bat I knew my time was limited. We rode up in the elevator together, and I tried to break the ice with him.

“How was your drive in?” I asked.

“Fine,” he said, glancing at his watch.

For all I knew, he wasn’t even aware I was in the elevator with him. He was staring silently at the doors. Unable to read his mood, I canned the banter and rode all the way up in silence.

When he got to his office, he seemed to relax a little bit. I could see him expand, almost like a peacock. He gestured for me to take a seat across from his desk, and I did. He kicked his  feet up on his desk, and I was surprised to see scuffed white tennis shoes as opposed to something more fitting for someone of his caliber. I looked around the room at the gold and platinum records hanging on the walls, the nicely appointed furnishings. I looked at the large window behind him and saw the city beneath us. I felt like I had arrived. Maybe not at my final destination, but certainly I was in the presence of greatness. And certainly, that greatness would recognize the same in me.

I watched him settle into his office chair (leather, of course) and stroke his salt and pepper goatee.

“Well. Let’s hear what you got,” he said, lacing his hands across his midriff.

I pulled out what I considered to be my best song. Russ had advised me against doing this, for whatever reason – he insisted I should always lead with my second best song, and then surprise them with a really good one. I wanted to impress right off the bat, though, and I hit him with my equivalent of heavy artillery. I listened as my song snaked its way through the boom box speakers. I had heard it many times, of course – was even sick of it by now – but to hear it in that space was a rush. I tried to read his face as he listened to the song.

“It sucks,” he said, jamming his finger on the EJECT button.

I was speechless. I went over the song again in my head, trying to examine it for flaws. I did see some, but I didn’t think it “sucked” by any stretch. He plopped the tape in my hand.

“Next,” he said.

I carefully selected the next song – one I thought would surely get his attention if this one didn’t. I don’t think it even made it through the first chorus before his sausage finger had jammed the EJECT button again.

“No. Heard the same song fifty times already. And every one was better than this.”

Again, the tape was deposited into my reluctant palm.

I studied his face, but found it rather stoic. He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t hostile. He was just matter of fact. That’s what made the shredding I was taking worse.

He raised his eyebrows, indicating that he was ready to hear more. I gave him another one – this one was an uptempo about a factory worker who was forced into retirement. Every other publisher had been positive about it, assuring me that my writing was “heading in the right direction”. He listened through the first chorus and stopped the tape again. It echoed like a gunshot.

He was shaking his head. It was the type of weary reaction you might give to a dog that has shit on the carpet so frequently that it wasn’t a surprise anymore.

“No. Just,” he seemed to be searching for words. “Where are you from again?”

Philly,” I said, which was more or less true. Nobody outside of the area would have known the suburb I was from anyway.

“Philly.” he repeated, in a tone I couldn’t quite discern.

I waited for him to gather his thoughts.

“You know what they make in Philly?” he asked

I wasn’t sure if it was a rhetorical question or not. I didn’t answer.

“Cream cheese. You know what they don’t make in Philly?”

I was doing my best to maintain eye contact – the treacherous orbs in my head wanted to look everywhere else but the face sitting across the desk.

Country music.” He slapped the tape on his desk, and slid it across to me. The plastic cackled against the wood grain.

“You’re from north of the border. You understand? You don’t get country. You don’t play country. You don’t live it. Go do something else.”

Tired of struggling, my eyes were studying the pattern of the expensive rug beneath my feet.

“Well, what do you suggest I do?” I asked sullenly.

“If you want to be a writer, go write rock or something in California. You don’t belong here,” his voice was matter of fact. A judge passing a sentence.

“You got more to show me?”

I did, but I most certainly did not want to continue to be eviscerated. Still, I passed him another tape. Within the first few seconds, he was already shaking his head.

“You’re nowhere near the caliber of writers here. No. Anything else?”

I shrugged. I had at least three more songs, but I didn’t want to hear how awful they were. I tried to stammer something about how I was pretty good for my age, and I had no doubt I would only grow as a writer. He looked at me impassively, then scanned some printed lyrics I had passed him earlier.  Studying my contact info (listed neatly at the top) he tried to pronounce my last name and got a reasonable (though incorrect) approximation.

“You a Jew?”

I was taken aback by the question.

“No…” I said.

“Huh,” he grunted, as if he thought I might not be telling the truth, but it didn’t matter much to him either way. Suddenly he was up on his feet.

“Well. Nice meeting you.”

“You too.” I mumbled.

We rode back down on the elevator together. There was no conversation. He was staring at the doors, and I was staring at my feet.  I felt like my face was burning up, and certainly my ego was stinging. He was tapping his foot, as if that would make the elevator go faster.

On the way out the door, I stopped him to shake his hand.

“Next time I’m in town, would it be okay if I stopped by with some new songs?” I asked.

“Sure,” his voice said. But his face said “Don’t bother.”

He walked out, whistling.

Shell shocked, I walked out to our idling Ford Escort. Mom was behind the wheel, her seat reclined.

“How’d it go?” she asked excitedly.

“Uh…fine,” I said. I didn’t want to talk about it.

“Did he like it? Did he say he’d pitch any of the songs?” she pressed.

“Um,” I said, trying to find words, “he wasn’t really interested.”

Mom’s reaction was almost comical. She practically slammed on the brakes and pulled over.

“He wasn’t interested!?” she practically shrieked in surprise, “What did you play him?”

I told her I played him almost everything. I listened while she rattled on – what went wrong, what I should have said, that I should have argued with him about how good the songs really were – but I didn’t have the energy to interact. I was totally deflated.

To say I went home with my tail between my legs is an understatement. I spiraled into a black depression that lasted for six months. Plenty of people thought I was good – plenty supported me. Hell, I even had an open door to some publishers whenever I was in town. But this. This hurt. And it carried more weight, because he was a Very Important Person.

My writing stagnated. I didn’t stop writing completely, exactly – mom and Russ still pushed me to come up with songs every week – but my efforts were halfhearted and sparse. I convinced myself that I must have sucked pretty hard to warrant that reaction. I went back and listened to all the songs I had written, and read the lyrics. I furiously hated them all. There’s a story that Picasso spent months on a series of paintings, and an art dealer came over to look at them. He marveled at Picasso’s work. After he left, Picasso slashed every painting with a box cutter. I don’t claim to be Picasso, but I completely understand.

It took me a long time to get over that, and even longer to be willing to come back to Nashville. I took the man’s lukewarm advice, and began to write pop/rock. I even had some success. I’ve learned a lot in the fifteen years since, though. I learned that I wasn’t ready, at age sixteen, to be a writer in this town. I was good – probably great for my age – but truly, I wasn’t on the level of some of the greats. So, in that sense, some of what the publisher told me was true. He was, I suppose, just being unvarnished and direct. Or, he was an asshole. I still haven’t decided. I’ve also heard writer’s tell tales of publishers who ripped you apart – really ran you through the wringer – because they wanted to see what you were made of. They wanted to see if you had the drive to come back even stronger. Write a better song, maybe. I don’t know if that works on most people, but it certainly didn’t work on me. If he was looking to see what I was made of, he discovered it – the black jelly of depression and self criticism. The stuff that quits, and can’t get out of bed or shower.

I’ve exorcized some of those demons, I think. Medication helps. If you’ve read the blog at any length, you know I had a lot of them to deal with. Maybe this meeting was just icing on the cake – the final straw in a mountain of straws that created a shit avalanche.

I’ve also learned that self criticism has a place, but it’s important to keep it in it’s place. The opinions of others – both the criticism and the praise – also has a place. And it matters, but not as much as you might think it does. I’ve decided to do the best I can. I always gave the criticism such weight, and paid no attention to praise. That’s not healthy. Neither is the converse. The answer – at least, I think – is to do the best you can. Of the criticism and praise, use what you can and forget the rest. Be happy with your art, and don’t let it be influenced by too many opinions.

And it doesn’t matter how nice of an office you have. You can still be an asshole.

 

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what year is it

Every time I sit down to write in this blog, this is basically how I feel. Writing – at least, writing about your own past – is sort of a form of time travel. You are watching history unfold to its inevitable outcome, but this time you are an observer instead of a participant. Don’t want to stay in 1993, when your Mom was obsessed with Ross Perot and dragging you to conventions? No problem. Let’s jump to 1997 when you were sitting in a music publisher’s office getting the hell kicked out of your balls. Or we could fast forward to college. Or go back to 1989 and visit Grandpa. But perhaps the most interesting part of the experience for me as been that I get to skip the lame parts. I could explain to you that there were ebbs and flows in Mom’s lunatic behavior. I could explain that her Gestapo style surveillance and paranoia wasn’t a constant thing, just a consistent thread. But there is a line between living and telling (or re-living and telling) where things get lost. I would surely lose you if I didn’t condense at least some things for the sake of writing. Nothing exciting happens on a Tuesday….so we just skip to the weekends (in a time machine, you can do that sort of thing). I try not to sacrifice accuracy as often as possible – I consider myself reporting this, not writing, since it isn’t fiction – but sometimes, for the sake of bringing out the underlying thread of the story, it’s a necessity. Time – and words – are malleable. If I were a different sort of a person, I’d be glossing over a lot. It pains me to actually write out some of the stuff I’ve put up here. A lot of the time, my jaw is set, and I am grimacing, and my brow is furrowed. I look at what I have written and say Well, shit. I can’t say that. And on the heels of that: But did it happen? It did. So I write it. This blog has multiplied more than I ever thought it would. What I mean is, when I sat down to write, I thought it would be a project I would eventually abandon. I thought I had maybe 10, 12 real stories in me at most. But the more I wrote, the more there was. And that scared me. It scared me because I wasn’t willing to sanitize and freeze dry what I was writing. And if I kept it up, I’d have to eventually write about things I don’t want to write about (which, actually, is most things I’ve written about). But I can’t stop. This is the most honest writing I have ever done – good, bad, or indifferent.

Sometimes, I sit down at the computer and look at the screen. I know what comes next. I think (briefly) about changing it – making myself or others look better, or making the situation more demanding so the actions of people involved are more sympathetic. That’s another thing with writing – you can change what happened. But I think the day I do, I lose sight of what this blog is about. And it is about writing things out and setting them aside – so they don’t get swallowed by the sea. And maybe, for myself, getting this out, seeing it on paper, I can get some better perspective on things I’ve only ruminated on for years in my mind. I’m afraid that I’ll be vindicated in my suppositions, but I’m just as afraid that I won’t be. Everybody likes to think they are the heroes of their own story, but the truth is often far more complicated than that.

 

99% of the people I’ve ever worked with were total professionals – great people. I earned a bit of a reputation in the industry as “One Take Danny” – meaning I could give the client whatever they wanted in just a couple of takes. If they hired me, it was unlikely I would cost them more than an hour of studio time – sometimes even much less. I loved the feeling of getting a “day’s work” done in such a short amount of time – it was very gratifying. I think that has bred a need in me to see the immediate outcome of a project – it’s very hard for me to just put my head down and work on something for an indefinite period without seeing a clear result. It’s why I have an easier time writing short stories than novels, and why I have such an easy time blogging – I post it, it’s done, people read it and comment.

Anyway, sometimes I would get a client who didn’t know what they wanted – those were always difficult. I’d have to do fifty million takes.

Client: That was great, Danny. Now, listen, we loved the way you did that – we really did – but can you give us a little more…I dunno. Something. You know?

No, I didn’t know. But dammit, I tried. You might not think a lot of fretting went on about my inflection in the word “waffle”, but you’d be wrong. In some cases, you’d be very wrong. I remember doing a voice over for a Batman action figure once. For those who might not know, a voice over is where you walk into a recording studio and read a script. If it’s for TV, they’ll usually have everything filmed and want you to match it to the picture. Back in the day, the clients, director, and writers were all right there in the room with you. These days they do it all via internet – the client can be in Micronesia, it doesn’t even matter. Anyway, this Batman commercial was cool – I loved the comics, and knew every nuance of the characters. All through the session, though, I could tell this guy – I think he was a writer – was getting agitated. Sensing he wasn’t quite satisfied, I asked if there was anything specific he had in mind.

Writer: Yeah. Can you make a noise?

Me: What kind of noise?

Writer: You know, like the kind of noise the Penguin makes?

I imitated the Penguin.

Writer: No, not like that. Like a quack.

Me: A quack?

Writer: Yes.

Me: Like a duck?

Writer: No, like a penguin. Penguins quack, right?

I thought I knew what he was talking about – the cigar chomping, umbrella wielding Batman villain did make birdlike sounds sometimes. I gave him what I thought was a dead on impersonation of it.

Writer: No, no. I need you to grunt.

Me: Grunt?

Writer: Yeah. Grunt like the Penguin.

Like I said, I was pretty familiar with the character – and he didn’t grunt, as far as I knew. I did some more takes, and grunted as requested – which, in my opinion, sounded nothing like the Penguin. The writer was growing more frustrated.

Writer: No, that’s not it. That’s not right.

Me: Okay…

Writer: Just GRUNT! You don’t know how to grunt?

Me: Yeah…you mean quack or grunt?

Writer: Just grunt!

I did some more takes, which sounded like I was passing the unabridged Webster’s Dictionary. I was sounding less and less like the Penguin and more like a guy who hadn’t eaten fiber in ten years.

Me: Was that…better?

Writer: No! That sounds nothing like the Penguin.

No shit, dude.

Writer: Okay. Can you quack and grunt at the same time?

I was starting to seriously question this guy’s grasp on the characters in the DC universe – much less reality – but I gave it my best shot. I prayed to everloving Christ that I got it. He listened back to my takes, and hope crept into my heart.

Writer: No. No. That’s not it.

Me: Well, what do you want?

Writer: I want you to sound like THE PENGUIN!

Me: …okay. Well, you’ll have to explain what you want, then. Because I have no idea.

The guy put his hands over his face for a minute before he spoke again.

Writer: Okay. You know the Penguin?

Me: Yes. From Batman.

Writer: Yes. The umbrella guy.

Me: Right.

Writer: He GRUNTS! Do the Penguin.

I did dozens more takes – I imitated the Penguin, I grunted, I quacked, I even squeaked. By the end, nearly an hour had passed. My voice was raw from grunting and his co-workers were looking at him kind of funny.

He opened his mouth to speak and the lady sitting next to him stopped him. Her voice spoke in my headphones.

Girl Writer: Danny, that’s fine. I think we have what we need.

I walked out of there on watery knees, but the writer – the guy who seemed to want to hear the Penguin taking a dump –  was red faced and sweaty. He looked tired, pissed, and frustrated. I could relate.

 

I was sitting in Uncle Richard’s studio one night, smelling the kerosene that came from the heater. There is nothing quite like the smell of kerosene and books – I have never smelled it elsewhere, and to this day when I smell something similar I am immediately transported to his little studio surrounded by oak trees. We had been discussing some project or another – he and I were always working on something. It might have been a musical (I started several, which I never finished) or a book (I have 1st, 2nd, and 3rd chapters of hundreds), or who knows what. We even worked on comic books. He was always encouraging me to stretch myself farther, to push the limits of my creativity.

Uncle Richard: You are a multifaceted individual. Do you know what that means?

Me: Like, a lot of interests?

Uncle Richard: Yes. A lot of abilities in different areas. You have a responsibility to each of those areas, to cultivate them. I don’t want to ever see you give up on yourself.

I nodded, and he settled further into his chair.

Uncle Richard: Do you know why I come here, to my studio?

I shook my head, but whether I answered or not would have made no difference – he was deep in thought. Ruminating.

Uncle Richard: I come here to get away from myself. And I can’t. I take me with me everywhere I go.

I chuckled, but his eyes flashed.

Uncle Richard: I’m quite serious.

Me: You don’t like yourself?

He thoughtfully shook his head. I could not believe it. This was the coolest person I knew – comfortable in any situation. If I ever had to be an adult, I wanted to grow up like him. Hell, he could have been introduced at Buckingham Palace and charmed the pants off the Royal Family. A guy who came up from nothing – literally – and had that amount of class and charisma remains impressive to me. I think he must have seen some of this on my face, because he looked dismayed.

Uncle Richard: Don’t look up to me.

But I did. I do. I can’t help it.

Me: Why shouldn’t I?

Uncle Richard: Because I am a coward.

He was growing morose – when he turned his eyes inward and started boxing with himself it was somewhat upsetting to watch. It was like Muhammad Ali vs Muhammad Ali – nobody won, but there was a lot of blood. I wasn’t sure what to say – he was smarter than I was, and anything I said he could counteract with an intellectual left hook. Besides, something was clearly bothering him. I was a skilled field surgeon in the area of the psyche by then – I was constantly picking out shrapnel from my Mom, myself, or my brother. This was one person I never expected to need my help – and in fact he probably didn’t. He was just licking old wounds. Every part of me wanted to help him, to say something as wise and witty as he always did, but I didn’t know how. I just sat there. He finally looked up.

Uncle Richard: You, though. You I admire.

I blinked.

Uncle Richard: You are fearless.

He put a hand on my head, a weary fighter taking a break in the corner of the ring.

Uncle Richard: Fearless. And don’t you forget it.

If only he knew.

 

Back stage one day, shortly before the play finished up, one of the bigwigs passed by my dressing room. He was a great guy, and I had met him on several occasions – he clearly loved the theater and actors. He asked me not to divulge what I made, which was perfectly fine with me – it was nobody else’s business anyway. Besides, numbers meant very little to me at that point. That very night, though, one of the older kids I worked with came into my dressing room. He was not terribly subtle.


Kid: Hey, dude.

Me: Whats up?

Kid: Uh. Listen. How much do you make?

Me: From the play?

Kid: Yeah.

Me: Um. I really don’t know…you’d have to ask my Mom…

Kid: Well, if you had to guess.

Me: I’m not sure. I think it’s in the hundreds. Maybe the thousands. I don’t know.
I couldn’t help but give him a useless answer, even if I wanted to tell him the truth – I was terrible with numbers, always getting them backwards or mixed up. I would frequently misread commas when a number reached into the thousands. He left, but I felt as if something was amiss. A great ball of ice began forming in my stomach, and never really went away for the rest of the play. The theater was a very special place for me, and although I couldn’t have articulated this at the time, I hated seeing it spoiled by politics. My mind didn’t have the bent for Machiavellian plots that may or may not have gone on – it still doesn’t. I don’t think it’s that I couldn’t come up with ways to be devious, it’s just that it never sat right with me. I told Mom all about what had happened – I didn’t keep secrets from her, and as far as I know she never kept secrets from me. At least not at that point. We were very close, made even more so by the constant threat of danger and the highs of success. She found out rather quickly that some elements in the theater were discontent with the number of union actors in the plays – they were paid higher wages, and it left fewer roles for the locals. The ice ball in my stomach grew, and I worried that I had done something wrong by even talking to this other kid. As an adult, I know I didn’t give any valuable information away – even if I had, I doubt a 10 year old would have tipped the scales any. It’s still an event that weighs heavily on me when I think of it.

The last night of the play, that ball of ice had melted into black premonition.


Me: I’m never going back there again.

Mom: What?

Me: I won’t be doing another play there again.

I started crying – one of the few times I’ve ever openly done so.

Mom: I don’t think so at all! You did great, they’ll have you back.

Me: No. No, I think that’ll be it.

My premonition was oddly accurate – I never again did a play there. I heard through the grapevine that the discontent elements won their fight – less union actors were used. It’s also possible that no appropriate roles came up, or that Mom somehow said or did something I was unaware of that offended the theater owners. The latter is something I’ve come to suspect happened in other cases – cases where people that otherwise loved working with me suddenly stopped talking to me altogether.

Even though I didn’t go back for a play, I was invited back for their New Year’s Eve Gala – a black tie, star studded event. They even let me sing and perform the first song I ever wrote (the one about the dinosaur). It was an amazing experience, and one I’ll never forget.

I saw several plays there over the years – mostly ones my friends were in, or had directed or produced. My favorite production, I think, was Sweeney Todd. I was probably altogether too young to have seen it, but Mom never vetted anything and rarely policed what I watched (with the odd exception of He-Man, which supposedly contained “magic”). As usual, Paper Mill l did it brilliantly – blood appeared to gush from the necks of Sweeney’s victims, their bodies made loud thumps as they dropped to the floor of his barbershop, and I believe they used real ground beef to make the “meat pies”. Just really good, Broadway-quality (and sometimes even better than Broadway) theater. It’s one of the reasons I loved it there. Nevertheless, I was relegated to enjoy this particular theater from the other side of the curtain from then on.